There are 866 publications in Poets & Writers’ database of literary magazines, 14 of which were added in early 2013. And while that number will certainly continue to increase, what’s just as certain is that all magazines and journals will have to grapple with the influence of digital—if they haven’t already. PW surveyed six journals, ranging from well established, longstanding publications like The Paris Review to small, online-only poetry publications like Octopus, and found lots of excitement about what digital publishing can do for these journals.
The Internet has freed journals from the constraints (and costs) of the printed page, allowing online-only publications like Jacket2, a poetry journal, to exist. “It’s our belief that the digital realm is ideally suited to the world of contemporary poetics, not just for its democratizing open-source accessibility, but also because it nicely complements poetry’s zero-sum economic realities,” said Jacket2’s editor, Michael Hennessey. “At the same time, there’s great freedom in not being limited by the material or chronological constraints of traditional print publishing.” To that end, Jacket2 has published features comparable in size and scope to anthologies, as well as brief, nontraditional work. The formula is paying off: 2012 was Jacket2’s first full year online, and it had nearly 300,000 visitors, with readership growing over the course of the year, and visits almost doubling by year’s end.
Another small poetry journal having a banner year is Octopus—one of the oldest online publications, having been founded 10 years ago. Because of various personal matters for the staff (“Life kind of happened,” said editor Joseph Mains, by way of explanation), Octopus did something a print publication would have a hard time pulling off: it took a two-year hiatus. Octopus 15 was recently released, to be followed soon by Octopus 16, the 10-year anniversary edition featuring online and print content “that will complement each other in a way that feels seamless.” Mains attributed his journal’s success (it, too, has more visitors than ever) to a number of factors, including digital’s far-reaching capabilities: “I think we’re moving toward the understanding that readers and writers are connected to their phones and computers and to their bookshelves. Both are important.”
McSweeney’s, like Octopus, is attentive to where readers are accessing its content. Jordan Bass, managing editor of McSweeney’s, said, “Our sense is that there’s some sort of partially overlapping Venn diagram there, between readers of our Web site and readers of our books; we’re always looking for ways to push those circles closer together, and keep them growing.” In 2011, the McSweeney’s app switched from being a paid, minisubscription app to a free one that gathers weekly stories, videos, and interviews. From there, it became valuable to the magazine as a place to try new things out and to tie all of McSweeney’s projects together in one place. Bass said the journal’s online efforts “show how an oral history book and a short story quarterly and a monthly magazine and any number of other projects all exist under the McSweeney’s aegis. I think keeping that ambit wide encourages people to keep coming back, to see what’s going to happen next.”
N+1, which features both literary and political content, is, at the moment, trying to leverage its online presence for a stronger physical presence—namely, it wants greater exposure in libraries. “We have way more readers of our Web site than we used to, as more serious readers come online, share articles, discuss them, etc.,” said editor Keith Gessen. “The downside is that a lot of people think of us as primarily a Web publication, whereas, in fact, for all sorts of historical and personal reasons the print magazine remains our focus.” Gessen went on to say that “the one place we’re definitely underrepresented is libraries. A handful of university libraries, a handful of the major public libraries, and that’s it. Which is a shame, because we love libraries—we all grew up in libraries.” Still, N+1 is drawing readers around the country: a quarter of its subscribers are in Manhattan and Brooklyn, while the remaining three-quarters are spread out all over the U.S.
Another print journal that’s always had a strong online presence is Electric Literature, which recently launched Recommended Reading—an online program that publishes one carefully selected story a week, “so readers aren’t overwhelmed.” Benjamin Samuel, Electric Literature’s co-editor, views Recommended Reading as “the ideal magazine for the digital age,” and so far the results have been stellar: the program gets about 1,000 new subscribers a week, and each story is shared hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of times. Recommended Reading was launched through Kickstarter; the journal hit its initial goal in about 48 hours and nearly doubled it by campaign’s end. Said Samuel: “Crowdfunding is giving many small publishers new opportunities to not only fund new projects but also develop an engaged audience at the same time.”
Without a doubt, digital is leveling the playing field—a point The Paris Review’s Lorin Stein mentioned. “I think this moment belongs to little magazines,” Stein said. “While subscriptions to the glossies keep going down across the board, ours keep going up. Their ad sales are plummeting; over the last year, ours more than doubled.” Stein reported that nearly all of The Paris Review’s subscriptions—both to the print and digital editions—are sold online, its app has been downloaded 10,000 times, and its online interview archive has drawn over 550,000 visits. “The important thing is for every magazine to do what it alone does best,” said Stein. “Our stories don’t need soundtracks. Our interviews don’t need video ‘enhancements.’ We’re not in the movie business. The trick with new technologies and platforms is figuring out how they can help you—rather than tailoring your mission to match what they can do.”